History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

05 November 2007

Reading for Pleasure and Research

Yesterday was my day to be guest blogger with the Risky Regencies crowd. Some interesting subjects came up none of which I am going to talk about. But the posts exchanged made me think of the books that have inspired me and why they had such an impact.

Is this research related? Maybe. Look at it this way. Characterization is the central focus of what I write. The inspiration for those characters comes from my own view of the world, a view strengthened, challenged and enlarged by the fiction I have read. More than ever I read with an eye to how the author draws her characters, which makes every novel I read a part of my education. So yes, this is research related.

The books below have been read more than once,. They are books I go back to again and again to remind myself how the author so thoroughly captivated me. From them I have learned and developed deep point of view, the need for action to balance all that depth, and an element of honor at the core of the characters that is the key for me as a reader. That element allows me to identify with a character and care about his/her life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

Here is my list. They are all fiction. They are not all brilliant, so I am not neceesarily recommending them but I am curious if any one else checking in has read them and especially what books have inspired your writer’s and reader’s world view.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee. Starting with the obvious. It is brilliant. And there is no doubt that Atticus Finch has honor at his core. What I treasure the most is his quiet commitment to what is right, his love for his children and their love of him.

I, MARTHA ADAMS by Pauline Glen Winslow. This one is the other extreme. Has anyone but me read this book? Published in 1982 by St. Martins, the cover tells it all. It is the story of the surrender of the US to the Soviet Union’s nuclear blackmail. Martha Adams is one small but significant part of an underground group that fights to drive the Russians from America. The title comes from the last page of the book and is a radio announcement that begins with “I, Martha Adams demand ….” Martha's story appeals to that part of me that dreams of saving the world.

MESSAGE FROM ABSALOM by Anne Armstrong Thompson. Thompson plays a game with the reader and showed me that honor comes forward in so many different ways. It is one of the greatest romances I have every read and it does not have single kiss in it.

REST AND BE THANKFUL by Helen McInnes. Not your typical McInnes book. It is set post World War II on a ranch in Wyoming where we meet a group of people recovering from the horror of the war, finding love and honor and truth along the way. My favorite thing about this book is the title which is the name of the ranch. Really it feels as though McInnes needed this respite as much as her characters.

CROSSING TO SAFETY by Wallace Stegner. Shows me, every time I read it , that honor comes in all shapes and sizes and that love is not simple and is sometimes destructive. I have yet, and probably never will, write characters as complex as Sid and Charity or as committed and loving as Sally and Larry. The book had me early on with Larry’s words: “In a way it is beautiful to be young and hard up. With the right wife, and I had her, deprivation becomes a game.”

THE COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS by Eva Ibbotson. My all time favorite heroine, an aristocratic émigré from the Bolshevik Revolution who goes to work as a maid in the home of an earl who is about to marry the wrong person. The hero never rises to her level but the character and eternal optimism of Anna Grazinsky is an inspiration personally and professionally. Marguerite, in my novel HIS LAST LOVER is my attempt to write a character with those two traits.

MEMORY by Lois McMaster Bujold. This is one of a series. All 10+ books are about one man and his family. In MEMORY Miles Vorkosigan lies and destroys his career with one false report. How he redeems himself and discovers his true self is an amazing piece of writing that inspires me every time I read it. This is a series that I do highly recommend. I included this cover so you can see that science fiction has as much trouble with covers as romance does.

Now it's your turn. What books that you read for fun, relaxation or entertainment have inspired and informed your writing.


Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Mary,

One book that I've read several times is To Marry an English Lord, a non-fiction book about American heiresses who've married British lords in the late 19th Century. I also find myself re-reading Jennifer Crusie's old Harlequin Temptations and Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time about Richard III. I captured the Castle is another favorite. And of course, I try to read Jane Austen over and over again.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Have read all of those as well -- can you pick one, Elizabeth, and express why it has meant so much to you -- because, with so many books to read, any book we read more than once has to be important to us for some reason. Though I will concede that sometimes I pick up an old favorite just for the comfort of it.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

To Marry an English Lord is almost like a comfort read for me. I feel like I'm living vicariously through these women who faced huge challenges coming from America and moving into these huge houses, dealing with the class system, and many servants. There were those in English society who looked down on them for marrying nobility, treating them as if they were simply cash cows. Some of these women ended up in bad marriages, but some of them like Jennie Jerome Churchill thrived. And then there's Mary Curzon who ended up Vicereine of India. I want to wave an American flag while I read it.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Pride in country and your sisters -- yes I can see that merits flag waving -- will have to look at it again from that persepctive. Thanks

9:14 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I am always moved by a writer's voice, and as a writer of historical fiction, I love to read and re-read novels that were contemporary in their time, but which capture the essence of their writer's era through voice.

There are 3 novels in this category that I read at least once a year, not only because they are literary comfort food for me, but when I need to think about voice, tone, atmosphere, and essence, I find myself returning to them.

Austen, always, but PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is, for me, the perfect novel. Nothing is amiss in its construction and structure, in character development and plot. And what better voice to remind oneself of that that of the era's most astute (and humorous -- too many people forget that!!) observer.

Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY and Hemingway's THE SUN ALSO RISES capture the voices of the "Lost Generation" and provide a stinging reminder to me -- who always feels so assimiliated, that Anti-Semitism was rife among the well-educated classes in 20th century America.

I consider these novels perfect examples of eyewitness primary source literature. We learn about the writers' eras through their own voice and the voices of their characters, as well as learning what they ate and drove, and how they dressed.

Of course novels should never replace nonfiction research sources, but they add that extra layer that is so important to a writer of fiction - not facts, per se -- but VERISIMILITUDE.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm with you on Austen and Fitzgerald, Amanda. Very eloquently put, about what we learn from novelists.

I think I'm much more a reader than a writer. Writing seems like a magically granted permission to wander through the foothills of imaginative fiction, try a very few of the things that have moved, beguiled, and troubled me over the years.

When I started writing erotica, it was to try to understand the effect upon me of Story of O, imo one of the most dangerously erotic books of all time. I read it when I was 20 and thought about it (mostly guiltily) for 2 more decades, until I figured out a way to engage the fantasy though Carrie's Story, a retelling from the pov of an over-educated motormouth San Francisco bike messenger (a gemini, like me).

Carrie and I share a fascination with 18th century erotic writing. The Marquis de Sade/Samuel Richardson connection brought me to historical romance.

At first, I wanted to write stuff that moved fast, like early Steven King. The other shoe dropped when I read Proust's In Search of Lost Time and wanted to write stuff that took the time to show how the past gets tangled up in the present. (The Proust connection is what makes The Slightest Provocation the rather singular romance it is for better or worse.) This time I'm trying to write about young lovers, for whom things move fast, AND about an older couple with heavier interior baggage to handle -- and show the contrast.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam, you make such interesting points about Time -- it can be a character in itself, sometimes.

As a reader I never mind when a writer eases me into the action, particularly in historical fiction, so I get the fullest possible sense of the world of the novel, which helps me to know what I'm dealing with when I meet the characters.

In contemporary fiction, however, I often want to begin with a conflict, something that thrusts me into the action. It's like jumping into the deep end without even asking whether there's water in the pool (let alone the temperature), as opposed to a slower one toe at a time immersion that I enjoy in historical fiction. Beginning with action in hx fx works for me only when the atmosphere is seamlessly layered in, in detail, along with it.

But as a writer I have learned that editors (and even my agent) want me to get going already by hooking the reader right on the first or second page with a blatant grab, rather than a seduction. (I don't mean a literal seduction in the plot, I mean seducing the reader into the world my characters inhabit). I've actually had to rework a few openings to satisfy the business end of the business.

Sometimes you can be writing the book of your heart, and still have to tweak it "to market" when your editor requests it! It's a hard lesson, but a useful one!

11:00 AM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Hi, Mary! I couldn't resist coming over from Risky Regencies. (thank you for mentioning us!)

I am, as Mary well knows, the world's WORST read romance writer, but I have read a book or two....

Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard is one of my all time favorites. I love survival stories, especially if they involve children, and this one is just marvelous. There is so much more here than the movie could show.

Persuasion by Jane Austen is my favorite Austen. In this case, I also love the movie.

Funny, Elizabeth. I just received To Marry an English Lord from Mary's and my friend, Julie. Just last night!! Now I can't wait to dip into it.

Of research books about the Regency my favorite is Waterloo: Day of Battle by David Howarth. This book tells the story of Waterloo from the perspective of the soldier. LOVE that book!

Another book I loved was Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style by Ian Kelly. Who knew I could fall in love with Beau Brummell?

11:47 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Yes, Amanda, the concept of fiction of the time as a primary source. Sorry to say that it now distracts me when I read Jane Austen. I have learned to listen to the books and let the words flow around me and -- aha-- the pleasure of it is there once again.

11:51 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

hooking the reader right on the first or second page with a blatant grab, rather than a seduction

oh yes. I guess I'm too old for grabs, unless it's a grab so brilliant I'll never get over it, like Call me Ishmael.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

[LOL] Yup, Pam. In this market, which I like to call "short attention span theatre," an opening line like "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times" wouldn't be considered enough of a hook.

A cold plunge works for thrillers and often for mysteries, but with something more ephemeral, like general historical fiction, or even romantic fiction, I really do enjoy those slow immersions. BUT, there still needs to be something going on. I was recently asked to give a jacket quote for a contemporary novel, which took me forever to get into. At page 175 (out of 557), the author finally got cooking with gas! The rest of the novel was very enjoyable, so I hope her editor suggested that she might want to truncate all the atmosphere in the first 1/3 of the book and cut to the meat of the conflict. But that was genre fiction, and in literary fiction, the rules and expectations are often different. I adored the novel CORELLI'S MANDOLIN, trusting the writer to connect the seemingly disparate stories which we are introduced to in the opening chapters. The writer's voice was so lush and sensual (not sensuous!) that I was enjoying the journey, and knew that the writer would get us to the destination he had in mind once he felt we knew who all the players were, where they came from, and what was at stake for them. Don't even get me started on what a piece-of-crap movie was made from de Bernieres's compelling and touching novel!!!

1:23 PM  
Blogger Gabriele Campbell said...

My re-reading pile is pretty huge and varied. It goes all the way from War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Karamassov Brothers, The Idiot, The Great Weaver of Kashimir (Laxness), Der Zauberberg (Thomas Mann), Unwiederbringlich (Theodor Fontane), La Cousine Bette, Splendeur et Misères des Courtisanes, Daniel Deronda, The American, Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Löwensköld (Selma Lagerlöf) to The Antiquary and The Three Musketeers and on to Lord of the Rings, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (Tad Williams), McCullough's First Man of Rome, GG Kay's Last Light of the Sun and Lions of al-Rassan, Gemmell's Waylander, Island of Ghosts (Gillian Bradshaw), Curse of Chalion, Bernard Cornwell's Warlord trilogy and a number of other books. Looks like the Deryni novels I just got will end up on that pile as well, and Jack Whyte. I'll also reread GRR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire when the next one comes out.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

Inspiring and informative books? Too many to count!

I think 90% of who I am as a reader and writer can be traced back to the two series I read to tatters as a child--the LITTLE HOUSE books and THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA. Both immerse me in a rich world far removed from my everyday life populated with characters who feel as real to me or more so than 99% of the people I meet in real life.

Moving on to more contemporary works, I find that I connect with Bernard Cornwell's books, especially Sharpe, and Joss Whedon's work, especially FIREFLY and BUFFY (I know, I know, Whedon isn't an author, but he's a damn fine storyteller). I've been thinking a lot lately about the idea of a "core story" that an author keeps coming back to no matter what genre or setting they're in, and I think that's why I connect so well to Cornwell and Whedon--I have a similar core story. No matter what else I'm writing about, there's always a root theme about power--how to get it if you were born without it, what to do with it when it's thrust upon you--that I see in their stories, too.

Beyond that? Well, to name a few, there's the Aubrey/Maturin series, Jane Austen, Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series, Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, Dorothy Sayers (especially the Wimsey/Vane cycle), and Lindsey Davis's Falco series. All have voices, characters, and worlds that keep me coming back for more.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Gabriele Campbell said...

That's an interesting observation about core theme, Susan. I think I have that, too - all my novels-in-progress and planning are about friendship, conflicting loyalties, and identity.

I think the friendship motive goes back all the way to some of my first reads, the Illiad and the Song of Roland.

4:59 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

My first introduction to the Georgian era came via "These Old Shades" by La Heyer. I still own my yellowing, dog-eared, marked up, pages coming unglued edition from the '60s. I have read it so often that I can recite dialogue from it when promoted. Each re-read made me fall a tiny bit more in love with romance, with the world of the Upper 10k, and with the magic in the promise of a HEA. Despite re-reading along well-worn tracks, it is an exciting and engrossing read for me every single time.

5:31 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I think the observation about core themes is fascinating, Susan and Gabriele.

5:38 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Core themes -- I think all writers have them though some are completely unaware. But don't you think they are shaped more by our upbringing and external influences than the first stories we read? Those first memorable books are keepers because they resonate with concepts we've all ready internalized.

Amanda, I so want to be a leisurely reader, to give the story time to draw me in and let me become a part of the writer's created world but I so rarely have the leisure of time that I cannot slow myself down enough to allow it. Must work on that. You have inspired me to try harder. Should I start with Corellis Mandolin?

6:26 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Mary, I wish I had more time these days to read for leisure. I read "Corelli's Mandolin" when I belonged to a book club a few years ago, but my own writing schedule then got so crazy that I didn't have time to read for pleasure on a schedule, so I had to drop out of the book club. That's a good book to start with because the structure is so different from what we usually write and often read; and even though I don't remember a lot of the plot points of the novel, the fact that the structure was so unusual for a book published these days ... and that I really had to stick with it and not give up because the story is not at all told in a linear fashion, particularly at the beginning ... has stuck with me as much as the author's lush voice.

I have so many books stacked up on my TBR pile, starting with Harry Potter #7, the new Jodi Picoult, and a whole bunch of books I picked up at the Historical Novel Society conference in June, as well as some historical and literary fiction I couldn't wait to read (a few years ago!!) and still haven't gotten to -- like my autographed copy of "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell."

I find that when I am working on writing a book that I can't do much reading for pleasure. I can't read in the same genre (e.g. historical fiction) if I'm writing in that genre because I don't want even the slightest taint of someone else's story to creep into my own, even subconsciously. Same as when I work on a contemporary novel, I can't read other writers' contemps. Also, I usually don't have the time to do anything else but work on my WIP when I'm under contract. I'm lucky I can get through the Sunday NY Times by the following Wednesday!

As to the concept of core themes, or repeated core themes, I keep coming back to the fish-out-of-water themes, combining them with the Cinderella story (somewhere I read that there are only 10 plots or themes and every story is a variation on one of them or on a combination of a couple of them). In real life, Emma Hamilton and Mary Robinson's stories were a combination of those 2 themes.

7:22 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Amanda, I've stayed in two book clubs so that I read SOMETHING because, like you, I read very little when I write -- other wise it's not much more than the Washington Post and the occasional magazine. I read lots of book reviews so I stay in touch with what is out there.

My theory has always been that my mind is so filled with the story that I do not want any one else's story to distract me.

8:05 PM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

My theory has always been that my mind is so filled with the story that I do not want any one else's story to distract me.

Hey....I think I'll adopt that idea.

8:37 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

"My theory has always been that my mind is so filled with the story that I do not want any one else's story to distract me."

That's my feeling too ... though I didn't manage to say it as succinctly.

8:40 PM  

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